Top things to do in Monterey in 24 hours

Once the capital of California in the days of Spanish and Mexican ownership, Monterey became part of the United States in 1846 and has since evolved into an exceptional coastal destination.

Packed with charm and beauty, Monterey was once home to a massive sardine packing industry, the abandoned buildings of which have today been converted into a wonderful collection of hotels, restaurants, boutique shops and galleries. Cannery Row – as this strip is known – was the setting for prize-winning author John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’ novel published in 1945 and the wider area the inspiration for other famous novels he created.

Home to the sensational Monterey Bay Aquarium, beautiful beaches, a wealth of history and all kinds of things to see and do, coast-hugging Monterey is also a destination for wine appreciators. With exceptional wine growing country just a stone’s throw away, many head here simply to sample the local vintages, tour the vineyards and explore the rich wealth of award-winning wine-tasting opportunities right here in the city.

Last – although very definitely not least – Monterey has a culinary scene sure to satisfy even the most discerning. Fresh and ethically-sourced seafood is the focus but this is just the tip of a luscious cuisine iceberg. The nearby sun-drenched Salinas Valley is known as ‘the salad bowl of the world’ and continuously supplies the freshest of ingredients straight from farm-to-table. From quaint and rustic inns to fine-dining and luxury venues with sensational ocean views, Monterey really has it all when it comes to ambient-filled venues and world-class cuisine. For those who choose to do so it is possible to feast your way through your hours here.

A Morning in Monterey

If you had to pick the two most famous attractions from Monterey’s generous menu it would have to be the buzzing Cannery Row and its wonderful aquarium – both of which you will get to explore in your morning’s adventures.

Cannery Row

Beloved by both visitors and locals, Cannery Row for its whole length is fronted by the ocean and is both a window into the past and the best that present day Monterey has to offer.

The area was originally populated by the native Rumsian people drawn by the rich fishing in the bay, later by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s and later still by an influx of fishing immigrants from China, Japan, Mexico, Italy, the Philippines and Portugal. Such abundant marine bounty saw the rise and rise of a canning industry from the late 1800s which by the 1940s had grown so large the city was known as the world’s sardine capital. Despite its apparent invincibility the whole industry fell to pieces in the 1950s. The former canning sites were abandoned one by one and where once was all busy industry punctuated by the sounds of whistles calling the processing hands to work became silence and dilapidation.

The seeds of Cannery Row’s revitalization began in the late 1960s when two men opened a restaurant in one of the abandoned works called the Sardine Factory. Although most believed this venture was doomed to failure in this run-down area the exact opposite in fact was to prove true. Balestreri’s and Cutino’s lead was followed by other entrepreneurs with the eventual result of a highly successful redevelopment and one in which the Sardine Factory still thrives today more than 50 years later.

Although Ocean View Avenue had always been referred to colloquially as Cannery Row it didn’t become its official name until 1958 and after the publishing of Monterey County local and award-winning author John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’. Published in 1945, this novel introduces several colorful characters such as Doc, the grocery store owner Lee Chong and the self-appointed leader of the deadbeats Mack: many of these characters were based on the real residents of Cannery Row.

The sardine heyday is now just history but Cannery Row has sensationally morphed into a long street full of charm, seafood restaurants, higher-end hotels, micro art galleries and gift boutiques – all of which were once part of the canning facilities. As the icing on the cake all the allure of the beach is never more than a few steps away.

If you are on the lookout for unique gifts or souvenirs Cannery Row is something of a goldmine. From artworks to antiques and jewelry to wines, you can browse and shop a variety of independent stores such as the Carmel Ridge Winery, Fine Art Turkish Grand Bazaar for home decor and Zfolio Gallery which sells elegant jewelry and glass.

Cannery Row could really be described as a series of highlights with its old architecture and picturesque spots but the following are perhaps some of its main things to see and experience.

McAbee Beach

With golden sands and leftovers from the fishing industry heyday in the pillars and piers, pretty McAbee Beach is set in a picturesque cove. When the tide drops back the exposed reef creates a series of magical tide pools full of miniature, colorful marine life such as crabs, sea stars and tiny fish.

The Cannery Row Monument

Unveiled in 2014, this lovely rock sculpture features nine bronze figures and is overall a tribute to those who have played their part in the Cannery Row story. With the ocean as a backdrop, the monument’s bronzes are of both specific people such as John Steinbeck and the Sardine Factory restaurant founders but also as general representations of groups such as the Chinese fishermen.

The Cannery Workers’ Shacks

Once numbering in their hundreds, today there are just three of the tiny cabins which were formerly home to migrant workers involved in the Cannery Row fishing and canning industries. You can take a look inside these one-room shacks and marvel at how as many as four men managed to live here so they could share the rent.

Wild California Sardines and the Sardine Factory

It would be unthinkable to come to Cannery Row without sampling one of the city’s greatest and most famous delicacies – the wild sardines. And what better place to do it than at the famous Sardine Factory from which Cannery Row sprang back to life from a neglected ruin.

Ocean View Boulevard

While pretty much all of Cannery Row offers some great photo opportunities the stretch known as Ocean View Boulevard past the aquarium is especially lovely.

Morning Coffee in Monterey

Studio Cafe

Once you have explored Cannery Row’s many highlights you will no doubt be ready for a pause in your morning. This lovely area has several choices for cafes one of which is the wonderful tucked away Studio Cafe – consistently voted Monterey’s number one by locals. With a gorgeous outdoor terrace complete with fountain and fish pond, Studio is a cafe with a conscience reflected in all it does from its composting of tea leaves to offering discounts for those who arrive by bike. Besides excellent coffee from a local California roasting company, it also offers a huge array of organic teas and a range of muffins from a local bakery.

Fisherman’s Wharf

A few minutes south from Cannery Row brings you to Fisherman’s Wharf where you will find the stylish Water and Leaves from which you have lovely views of the bay to enhance your coffee break. With a range of fresh home-made pastries and heaps of tea and coffee choices, Water and Leaves also offer a range of differently flavored and locally sourced raw honeys for using as a sugar substitute in any drink you choose.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium

Considered by many to be one of the best aquariums in the world, this non-profit establishment dedicates a vast amount of effort to marine life protection, ocean conservation and education in the fields of preservation. Their aim is to present the magnificence of the ocean in such a way that all visitors leave inspired to put their own efforts towards conservation.

Running since the 1980s and located on the historic Cannery Row, this wonderful organization and its highly skilled staff make it possible to view a vast quantity of creatures in sensitively replicated environments with more than 30 aquatic galleries for the public to enjoy and learn.

Gaze through giant windows and into a range of specific habitats to meet the fascinating underwater creatures which call this home. The 28ft high Kelp Forest exhibit, for example, is home to swarming sardine, prowling leopard sharks, wolf-eels, vibrant red octopus and any number of fish both tiny to huge which weave in and out of the giant underwater forest.

Elsewhere you can see more of the hundreds of species and thousands of creatures which live at the aquarium from playful sea otters to jellyfish whose mesmerizing movements are pure ballet and docile turtles to rainbow colored sea stars and crabs.

The aquarium’s newest exhibit is entitled ‘Viva Baja’ and showcases marine species such as Pacific seahorse and blue-spotted jawfish which inhabit the mangroves, deserts and coral reefs of Baja.

If you prefer to see your marine wildlife in the open ocean this part of the California coast is something of a hotspot for whales and dolphins. At certain times of year you can even spot whales from the land thanks to the presence of a near-shore canyon which allows even the ocean giants to come in close. However, if you want to get a little closer still you can opt for a whale watching boat trip directly from Monterey and your chances of seeing species such as humpback whale, blue whale, orca and several types of dolphin are high.

Trips range from three hours upwards and be sure to opt for an ethical company whose focus is conservation, education and respect rather than those whose priority is just taking money from tourists. The best set-ups usually have a marine biologist aboard too to answer all the questions you may have.

Lunch in Monterey

Known as the ‘salad bowl of the world’, few places offer the same straight from the source produce as Monterey County. Factor in the incredible boat-to-table seafood and a region known for its wines and you have a recipe for some of the finest dining experiences possible.

If you have your heart set on a seafood lunch Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf are the seafood hubs. Many of the venues here throw in beautiful ocean-side settings to make dining here exceptional. One of these – the Fish Hopper – is just a short stroll after you have finished your morning at the aquarium and considered one of the best seafood restaurants in the area. Its elevated location on an historic pier with the ocean all around is hard to beat while its menu of Black Angus steak, pasta, sustainably-caught seafood and more is diverse and exciting.

Old Fisherman’s Grotto

Another great venue for a seafood lunch is the Fisherman’s Wharf-located Old Fisherman’s Grotto. With its large picture windows for enjoying the view and maybe spotting passing sea-lions, this waterside spot has been keeping discerning diners happy since the 1950s and has a trophy cabinet crammed to bursting with industry awards. A number of these are thanks to its exquisite clam chowder which for many years now has been voted the best in the county. Although the restaurant’s focus is sustainably-caught seafood it also serves high quality steaks and a selection of Italian dishes in its maritime-themed, white table-linen space.

An Afternoon in Monterey

There are a few things for which Monterey is particularly known but its stunning scenery and its wine are two of the brightest jewels in its fine crown. For your afternoon hours you can choose between discovering the natural magnificence on an exceptionally lovely scenic drive and then exploring the beautiful town of Carmel or sampling the best of its wines.

Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea – The 17-Mile Drive

Just a few miles away from Monterey can be found the enchanting and tranquil Carmel-by-the-Sea, infused with history, surrounded by natural beauty and an enclave for musical, literary, performing and visual artists. Visiting this lovely seaside community is easily achieved from Monterey with a connecting scenic drive along the peninsula which is simply spectacular.

This famous route – known as 17.Mile Drive – is filled with grandiose Pacific views, golf courses of international renown such as Spyglass Hill and magnificent mansions. Winding its way along both the coastline and also ascending into the hills, 17-Mile Drive’s vistas are breathtaking. Some of the highlights on route include Pebble Beach, the Victorian houses of Pacific Grove and the Point Pinos Lighthouse which, dating from 1855, is the West Coast’s oldest that has seen continuous service.

This area is also known for its forest of rare Monterey Cypress trees which having been subjected to continuous prevailing winds off the ocean have been sculpted by nature into some weird and wonderful shapes. The most famous of all these trees is a landmark known as the Lone Cypress which clings, seemingly impossibly, onto an otherwise bare rocky outcrop with the Pacific Ocean as its backdrop.

Carmel itself, with its sparkling beach and quaint buildings and infused throughout with charm and an air of romance, is a delight. A haven for the arts and artists, the town has a wealth of galleries to explore along with a wonderful collection of boutique shops for unearthing high quality gifts and souvenirs.

Carmel’s major highlight is the beautiful Carmel Mission which was established in 1771 as one of the California Spanish missions of Father Junipero Serra, later canonized as a saint. Still today an active church, the beautiful stone Roman Catholic chapel which dates from 1797 is a National Historic Landmark and besides its function as a place of worship also hosts art exhibitions, music performances and other events.

The whole is also a museum which tells the story of both the Mission and the wider area through the centuries. Divided into four separate sections, a visit here will acquaint you with the painstaking and incredible restoration of this beautiful place. Additionally you can explore the cell where Father Junipero Serra both lived and died, view exhibits of his official vestments and browse art exhibitions and family heritage.

If you are a lover of Italian food you might want to linger in Carmel to dine. This lovely seaside location has an incredible number of Italian restaurants which offer cuisine as authentic as you will find without traveling to Italy. So highly rated is this town for Italian food that many Monterey locals – not short of incredible dining options themselves – head out here to feast on a regular basis.

An Alternative Afternoon – Monterey’s Wineries and Wine Tasting

Almost 40,000 acres of grapes, 175 vineyards and around 80 vintners – Monterey County’s wine producing is both prolific and award-winning. The bulk of the grapes are chardonnay and pinot noir but thanks to a series of perfect grape-growing micro-climates Monterey’s wine country also produces around 30 other wines of both red and white varieties. Such an impressive set of statistics makes it easy to see why this is something of a paradise for wine lovers but Monterey has an added bonus which makes it even better yet for those with limited time here.

The city offers an astonishing number of tasting rooms, several of them clustered on Cannery Row. In short this means all of the variety and richness of the region’s wines are brought to you in a convenient and easily accessed form so you can sample as many and as much of these magnificent wines as you have the time and capacity for.

A Taste of Monterey Wine Market & Bistro 

For a truly comprehensive introduction to the best of the region’s wines head to the Wine Market which offers tasting flights and a range of small plate food accompaniments. With a gorgeous waterfront setting on Cannery Row which drinks in those lovely bay views, this venue is also a good bet if you are looking for wine-related gifts.

The Carmel Ridge Winery Tasting Room

The Carmel Ridge label dates back to the mid 1990s and is known for its by-hand grape harvesting on its Carmel Valley plots. It also uses traditional techniques and oak barrels to give their chardonnays, pinot noirs, cabernet sauvignons and more their distinctive traits. For great wine sampling with incredible views head along to their tasting room on the Cannery Row waterfront.

The Bargetto Wine Tasting Room

Fans of old world-style wines should make their way to this Cannery Row-located wine tasting room which showcases the cool-climate mountain-grown wines of this third-generation family concern. Committed to sustainable practices, wine flights at this lovely shabby-chic venue incorporate pinot noir, pinot grigio, merlot and more. It is also a great place to check out if you are on the hunt for gifts for wine lovers.

The Blue Fox Cellar

Known for its traditional techniques and its grenache and grenache rose, the Blue Fox – yet another of the Cannery Row tasting room options – is a small concern growing grapes in Mendocino County. Their tasting room is a lovely modern space filled with artwork.

The Wine Experience

If you would like a rather more interactive wine experience head to Cannery Row’s Wine Experience. Offering flights showcasing Monterey County and San Benito wine varieties as well as some locally brewed beer, this fairly new concern also aims to get the wine lover more deeply immersed in the world of wine. Here you can take part in custom blending sessions, wine-focused workshops or other wine-related experiences and classes.

If you want to combine a food and wine experience there are tours available which do just that. Typically these concierge-style behind-the-scenes experiences take you on a walking tour of some highly diverse restaurants where you can sample incredibly crafted culinary delights ranging from high quality but homely grandma’s kitchen-type fare to the highest echelons of haute cuisine. Besides simply satisfying your gourmet cravings you will be able to take in some beautiful scenery, tour kitchens, meet local winemakers face-to-face and taste some personal-recommendation wines which are exclusively available here; perfect if you want to add something a little out of the ordinary to your own wine cellar.

Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Monterey

Located amid award-winning wine country, home to a relatively recent emergence of a diversity of excellent micro-breweries and with an established cocktail culture – whatever your preferred pre-dinner drink Monterey has it covered. Once you decide it is time to dine you are going to be spoiled for choice with exceptional seafood taking star billing.

Pre-dinner drinks

Craft beer fans can head to the lovely pavilion-like beer garden of the Alvarado Street Brewing Company‘s brewpub to sample one of the 20 or so beers produced right on site. Housed inside an historical building, you can settle at one of the garden’s benches, relax completely on the easy chairs or opt to watch the world pass by on Alvarado Street from the pavement patio.

When it comes to cocktails Monterey has no shortage of venues where expert mixologists and ambiance come in plentiful supply. Choose from speakeasy-type set-ups or intimate boutique bars to elegant high-end lounges where sensational ocean views all come as part of the experience.

Helmsman Lounge

For those looking for refinement check out the Helmsman Lounge at the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa – one of Cannery Row’s ocean-front luxury hotels. Cocktails here are crafted from small-batch spirits, the décor made up of wood and leather and the views are of the gorgeous kind. If you are here at the weekend you will have live music to serenade your sundowners too.

Angel’s Share

Another choice for cocktail connoisseurs is the speakeasy-inspired Angel’s Share who offer a vast menu with a range of barrel-aged cocktails that deliver some incredible taste sensations.

C Bar

If you can’t quite decide whether to go for cocktails, beers or wine the C Bar – part of the elegant InterContinental’s Clement Monterey Hotel – does all of them exceptionally well. With sangrias, sparkling wine flights, local craft beers and some highly creative cocktails you can choose to kick back on the fire-pit patio or in the bar – either choice offer stunning Monterey Bay views. If you are here for happy hour you can take advantage of some wonderful deals and specials on sparkling wine.

Dinner

Once the epicenter of a giant canning industry and for centuries a thriving fishing hub due to the plentiful ocean bounty right on the doorstep Monterey knows a thing or two about seafood. Finding great venues to sample this city’s ocean-derived culinary treats isn’t hard – seafood restaurants are everywhere.

Sardine Factory

Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf are, not surprisingly, littered with options with perhaps the major must-visit spot that of the multi-award-winning Sardine Factory. This iconic institution was the first restaurant on Cannery Row – opening its doors to customers for the first time in 1968 when the buildings of the former canning industry lay derelict and abandoned.

As the decades have unfolded various additions such as the lovely glass-domed conservatory have been made but the incredible ethos which has kept the Sardine Factory’s place as one of the city’s major successes remains the same. One of the original founders – Ted Balestreri – believes ‘every customer has to be treated like the most important person on earth’ so it isn’t surprising that the service here is often raved about.

One of the Sardine Factory’s most notable features is its award-winning and prestigious wine list which showcases some hard-to-find selections and a wine cellar thousands of bottles strong. Such a collection ensures a perfect wine/food marriage for even the most discerning of customers.

While seafood is the focus here the alternatives are also plentiful with veal, chicken, lamb, pork and steaks all featuring on the extensive menu. Be sure to try the signature dish of lightly smoked wild California sardines served with lemon and capers.

Culinary excellence, wonderful atmosphere and extensive wine pairings keep both locals and visitors flocking here while the restaurant can also boast an impressive celebrity clientele too; star chef Julia Child, Prince Albert of Monaco, Hollywood actors, famous politicians and the rich and famous from all around the world have all dined here.

To make life easy you can also transition from drinks to dining with very little effort if you chose one of the previously mentioned pre-dinner drinks venues. The Alvarado Street Brewing Company offers some fresh-ingredient gastropub-like cuisine at its lovely Brewery and Grill restaurant with the smoked barbecue specials particularly popular.

The Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa’s restaurant at Schooners Coastal Kitchen is truly elegant but relaxed dining with a view, perched as you are here directly over the bay. Sustainably-sourced seafood is the focus but there is plenty of other choice too as well as some incredible desserts to finish with and also a great California wine menu.

The Clement Monterey Hotel’s C Restaurant is a good choice for fine dining fans and every table here guarantees an ocean view with every chance of spotting dolphins, whales, otters and seals as you feast on incredible seafood ethically sourced.

An Evening in Monterey

Beach House Restaurant and Bar

When you are in an ocean-side destination one of the most enjoyable ways to spend some after-dinner hours is simply strolling and taking in the views in the changing light of evening. If you are feeling especially energetic you can walk the whole length of Ocean View Boulevard and finish at the gorgeous little bay known as Lovers Point Beach. In summer when sunset comes later you can still watch the surfers catching their last waves of the day here in the evening. If you want to linger a while you can head to the Beach House Restaurant and Bar which overlooks the beach and grab a nightcap cocktail.

Monterey County Fair and Event Center

For a little laid on entertainment salsa dancing and live music of varying genres can be found all over the city. Alvarado Street and Cannery Row serve as the principle hubs although there are also other venues such as Cibo Ristorante Italiano who host jazz, soul and funk live performances almost nightly. Also the Monterey County Fair and Event Center, besides its annual music festivals, has a full and diverse calendar of events which incorporate arts, music and entertainment in various guises. Check out their website to see what might be on while you are in town.

Golden State Theater

Theater fans have plenty of options, particularly if you include nearby Carmel in the mix. Alvarado Street’s Golden State Theater is worth visiting – as much to see its lovely interiors as enjoying the diversity of performances here. Originally constructed in the 1920s, this grand 1,000 seat theater was once home to vaudeville shows and has been sensitively restored to its former picture palace glory and makes for a highly atmospheric venue. On the menu of entertainment, possibilities are roadshows, music concerts, and performances, lectures and movies.

Forest Theater

For a gorgeous theater venue of a very different kind make your way to Carmel’s Forest Theater where soaring pines form your surroundings and a sky full of stars your ceiling. Operating for more than 100 years, the Forest Theater stages both theater performances and movie screenings with a box office on-site so you can just turn up and pay.

If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Monterey in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!

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